Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Aging Operatic Voice: Baseless Discrimination Because It Is EASY

We are living in dangerous times when discrimination of all kinds are becoming easier.  An American Presidential candidate rises nationally by inciting racism, sexism and xenophobia in such overt ways that only a few years ago would make the average fair-minded person cringe.  Similar right-wing zealots are rising to power worldwide. The "ARTS," which are supposed to inspire us to higher thinking should be the last refuge from such ignorance, yet we should be very mindful today that the business of art is not necessarily art.

There was a time when people aged in preparation for death.  I have been reading some 18th and 19th century novels lately which unabashedly support this.  After a certain age, one would wait to die and reduce any kind of activity that would be considered strenuous.  Today it is commonplace that older people maintain physical and mental fitness in ways that prolong their abilities by decades, beyond what was generally accepted as a time to slow down only a few decades ago.  I know for fact that I am in better shape now at 50 than I was in my 30s.  Taking up Kung Fu and Tai Chi have certainly improved my general fitness and health extraordinarily.  I feel stronger and have more stamina now than I did 20 years ago.  Being younger is not necessarily being more fit or more energetic.  I know young people in their teens and 20s who are physically weak and yet it is taken at face value that younger is stronger.  I have been an athlete in my life and I know that tissues wear out over time and the kind of fitness that a top level athlete must maintain becomes difficult with age.  But whether that is because of physical wear-and-tear over time or that tissues are weakened with age is still a question to ponder.  At very least, it is proven that those who stay physically fit can do a great deal more as they age than those who do not work on their personal physical fitness.

The question with respect to opera is does a singer's capacity to produce top quality operatic sounds diminish with age?  Does one necessarily lose range, flexibility, beauty of tone and/or stamina with age?

After 30 years of teaching (I began teaching at age 20) it is my experience that not only do voices not need to diminish considerably with age, voices that have diminished can be revitalized.

To what degree one maintains the voice has everything to do with understanding the physiological functions of the voice and how the respective musculature and tissues need to be maintained relative to the aging process.  One needs to consciously do more to maintain the body and the voice over time.  I can state with great certainty that imbalances in the singing voice take time to become debilitating.  When we hear a voice begin to wobble,  we should listen to recordings of that voice in the past and ask ourselves what dysfunctions were already at play before, which over time lead to wobbling and other irregularities.  It is also important to understand that wobbles occur because of muscular imbalances (not just in the throat but relative to breathing as well) that can be remedied.  However, such remedies require time and patience, which have become luxuries that the business of singing does not allow.

Muscles that are pushed beyond their natural functions will eventually give way to instability.  However, muscles challenged to achieve and maintain their natural functions will remain stable, given that supporting musculature also function properly.  Longevity in singing requires global physical health, not just the health of the vocal folds.  The process of singing involves pretty much all muscles of the body in some way.  Those that produce a healthy, balanced tone and sing repertoire that is friendly to the specific voice type will tend to last longer, all things being equal.

This woman, Fausta Truffa, (by all accounts so far an amateur singer) is the most talked about classical singer in the past few days because of this video.  If she is able to maintain her voice to this level in her 80s why can't others?

Her colleague in this choir, Ignazio Del Monaco, an octogenarian tenor is also causing a lot of opera fans to consume a lot of online time:

The retired soprano, Lina Vasta, produced this in her 90s:

Last summer, at the Härnösand Summer Opera Academy and Festival, tenor George Shirley at 81 years of age sang a concert that we are still talking about for his steady, beautiful and resonant voice and his refined artistry.  Yet there are singers in their 30s and 40s whose voices have lost all semblance of balance but because they had an early start to their careers, they are still hired because of name recognition.

But in the age of the internet when a video like those above can go viral in a matter of hours, could that tool be used by opera houses to get the word out about new talent, younger or older who have something special to bring to the stage?  Their names would quickly be recognized and they would fill seats.  I would go to Italy and hear Fausta Truffa sing.  That is an elevated musical soul carried through a gorgeously balanced voice.

More importantly operatic voices need time to achieve true balance and singers need time to understand their voices so they can determine early when the voice is ever so slightly out of balance.  Small imbalances become severe problems over time.  

Longevity in singing depends more on how balanced the voice is used. 

One of the great problems with operatic singing is that lower quality singing can lead to high level careers.  What is considered operatically viable today is not always depended upon voice.  Looks and charisma are dealt with as separate issues and not necessarily how they may combine with the voice to create a stage charisma.  Singers are recruited today more based upon how they may appear on a poster or video than what they actually sound like in the hall, with an orchestra.  It is not enough to make a pretty sound.  It is crucial to make a sound that is very visceral in the hall in the presence of an orchestra.  For this, the voice needs to be used optimally.  Optimal and truly visceral is not always "pretty" particularly in a small space.  I use the word pretty here to mean superficial, bland, inoffensive and lacking in personality. Those that make decisions about vocal quality too often hear singers in small rooms and are often not aware that the penetrating quality that transforms well on the operatic stage with a substantial orchestra accompaniment often sounds piercing to the ear in a small room.  

The previous article about Squillo addresses the global functions of the voice that lead to that special resonance.  It is this totality of functional balance that creates the special quality that is experienced as a visceral vibration in the house.  It is this quality throughout the vocal range that brings an audience back and that keeps the voice in shape.  An operatic sound requires concentration in a way that commands the attention of those listening.  There is a difference in a sound that is loud enough to be heard and a sound that seems to vibrate inside the listener's body.  Of the former there are many, of the latter not so many.  Not because some have it and some don't, but rather because it has to be trained.  Furthermore it has to be maintained in order to last.  All the bodily functions that lead to this special vibration must be maintained and so the individual singer must understand how s/he needs to eat, drink water, sleep, stay physically fit, etc.  And those issues are not the same for every singer.  Each person must find their personal routine for keeping in shape.

The process of selecting singers for an operatic career makes no sense relative to the visceral art form that is opera.  Opera is being packaged as the sophisticated person's musical theater and it is not.  Great operatic voices reflect the physical and psychological make up of the specific person who is singing.  It is much more than mere entertainment.  It is a transforming experience when it is being done by voices that are trained for it.  A trained operatic voice is the equivalent of a baby's cry or laughter if it were emanating from an adult.  In polite society, the natural voice is suppressed at an early age.  Opera is highly elevated music sung by the most primal voice.  And primal does not mean aggressive or violent.  It means the way nature meant for the voice to be used.

The previous three paragraphs address a systemic problem that confuses the process of selecting singers and by association also contributes greatly in redefining opera for the worse, not better.  If a non-operatic voice that sounds pretty in a small room can be hired professionally, then it follows that the field will become saturated because underdeveloped voices are admitted for other skills that though important do not translate in the house when the voice is not viable.  A great artist without a voice is like a great orator whose microphone has been turned off.  What if Martin Luther King's Dream speech was made while his microphone was off.  Would we get the message through his gestures and his obvious passion?  And do not take this to mean that we can fix opera by putting microphones in the houses, because the operatic voice not only transmits audible sound waves.  The coordination that produces an operatic sound also carries emotional information.  For that purpose microphones cannot replace an operatic resonance.

Because the training of an operatic voice requires time in order for the entire range to be properly balanced, singers, especially those with more substantial voices, need to be in their 30s before they are truly ready. Therefore competitions with age limits of 30, leave out a great number of superlative artists who are still trying to get their voices together.  An age limit of 30 also does not take into account that the winners, though impressive may not be physically aware of what makes their voices work and can falter very early in their careers.  Raising age limits brings more physically fit singers and therefore a better chance for longevity.  If all singers have time to grow, even the coloratura who may be coordinated at 20 may not sound so extraordinary when she faces a 32 year-old competitor who is not only coordinated but truly understands how to use the instrument.  The coloratura of 32 may end up lasting longer because she would have a better idea how to manage her voice in difficult situations.

The truth is opera is not a kid's game.  A voice can be coordinated at a very young age but the time it takes the muscles to grow in strength and stamina is another thing, and a young singer who starts a career early needs a teacher around all the time until s/he figures out how the voice functions and understands signs of problems before they ever become apparent to others.  Constant travel makes that kind of access difficult even with tools like video-conferencing.

The younger generation of singers needs to hear older singers who use their voices successfully at a high level with great artistry, so they understand what they are aiming for.  When we stop having great singers who have made long careers, we also lose mature interpretations of roles and songs that can only get deeper with life experience.

To bring another matter to rest, there is nothing that concretely proves that a post-menopausal woman must lose her voice any more than she would lose her ability to walk straight.  The rate of muscular degeneration more than likely depends upon the degree to which muscles were weak before menopause as opposed to that they rapidly degenerate afterwards.  Scientists have a tendency of observing a group of people and decide that certain trends prove the fact.  The two women above certainly go against the idea that you must lose vocal ability post menopause.  A random Youtube search for 90-year old opera singer yields also the following:


I am particularly aware of the flexibility of Maestro Loforese's breathing.  Released after each phrase! And I get the sense that his entire core musculature is compressing the sound.  Not just isolated muscles.

A healthy voice does get older and with extreme age, it is understandable that one will lose some muscle strength both in the laryngeal and breathing musculature.  However the degree of strength loss depends greatly on the person and how well they keep in shape.  Regular practice of balanced singing can keep one in great vocal shape for many years beyond what was considered possible.  In our times, the Age of Physical Fitness, it should be considered possible for singers to last a lot longer than their predecessors, not shorter.

The current ageism that is rampant in the field in the guise of dramatic realism is appalling!
There are well-meaning people in the field who have simply drunken in the fountain of modern operatic marketing and take the words of those who run the business as opposed to really thinking through the complex issue of building operatic audiences.

Size zero sopranos usually don't have the voices to sing Tosca or Turandot and tenors who sing in reinforced falsetto will not last long.  So why don't we just get real and sell opera as opera.  Begin with truly great voices that are accompanied by passionate souls and great musicianship and build from there! Age is the last thing on my mind when I go listen to opera!  I am usually more concerned for a young singer who lacks the physical strength to sing opera than I am for an older singer not looking the part.  If they are great singers, the moment they open their mouths one forgets what they look like!  Looking the part should be seen like a bonus that we are happy to have.  But without a voice, George Clooney attempting to sing opera would suddenly look extremely unattractive!

© May 24, 2016

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Squillo: The Haves and Have Nots in a Fast-Food Operatic Culture

Some voices have squillo and some voices have not!

I have heard this so many times and at face value, it is a true statement.  It is however an incomplete statement and in such a state it is dismissive and belittling of the nature of opera and even to the limitlessness of the human spirit.  

This statement has been used to dismiss and discourage singers whose voices have not fully developed.  However, many of these singers have such extraordinary imagination and musicianship, that it would be a shame not to help them develop the special resonance that makes a singer's voice easily heard in the presence of orchestral forces.  Indeed, the complete statement should read thus:

Some voices have squillo and some voices have not! However all voices are capable of developing it!

First, let us define this word squillo pronounced ['skwil: lo].  It is a special resonance that exists in the human voice when it is produced as nature intended.  That is a bold statement!  First, why is this resonance so natural and how does it function?

When I define squillo as a natural occurrence, the reply is always why does it not occur in all voices? The answer is that it does...In pretty much all babies unless there is a vocal defect of some kind.  I have a spectrographic analyzer on my Iphone and I will turn it on whenever I hear a baby begin to cry, whether on a plane (which often occurs) or in the supermarket.  That special resonance around 2800 Hz (vibrations per second--the precise resonance varies with voice type, and lies between 2500 and 3100 Hz.  The specific resonance depends on size and shape of the vocal tract and size relationship between the pharynx and the epilarynx) is always present.  When my son was in utero and I observed the first ultrasound, the doctor who knew I was a singer pointed to the vocal folds as the second vital organ after the heart that can be observed functioning at the end of the first trimester.  She said entertainingly: 

"he will be vocalizing non-stop until he comes out!  He has to warm up for that first cry!"

So babies train their voices in utero and come out with a voice with a powerful resonance around 2800 Hz.  Let us assume for a moment that all of us come out that way!  

What does it mean relative to carrying over an orchestra?  

Carrying over an orchestra is a deceiving term!  The truth is that in terms of decibel levels, the orchestra is always louder! However its area of greatest acoustic pressure as an ensemble peaks around 500 Hz.  The human ear is most sensitive between 2000 Hz and 3000 Hz and particularly sensitive between 2500 Hz and 3000 Hz.  When that resonance around 2800 Hz is strongly present in an operatic voice, the human ear perceives that voice more strongly than anything else in the acoustic environment.  The theory that accompanies this states that nature created this resonance, scientifically referred to as the Singer's Formant (because it was discovered in the the study of operatic voices) is that nature developed the Singer's Formant so that parents can hear their babies from anywhere, in case the child cries for food or for help even.  In that way, the species could continue to propagate.  

The resonance evidently is associated with primal sounds--a baby's cry for instance.  That resonance can be eliminated to make soft sounds, as when one does not want to be heard.  If one were to socially develop speech habits that were about not being heard, s/he would gradually un-train the muscular dynamics in the throat that produce the Singer's Formant.  And that is how most of us lose the squillo (also called The Ring in the Voice) before we even know we need it!

Getting our squillo back:  This is the real issue.  It is not whether we can have squillo or not, but rather how do we get back what we had from the start.  If the answer was simple, I would not be writing this article.  The problem with vocal pedagogy is that singers like easy answers and we teachers try to accommodate that need too often.  Operatic singing has many inter-connected, interdependent, interactive components which influence each other.  The problems are best solved when we understand that it is not "the chicken or the egg"  but rather "the chicken and the egg." Resonance and phonation are interdependent, as are tone-concept and breath coordination, as are body alignment and breath coordination, as are text articulation and phonation, etc.  Likewise squillo, that special Singer's Formant resonance that gives the audience the impression that our voices are more easily heard than the orchestra's sound depends on a well-organized source tone, requiring adequate mass and fold lengthening and correct closure (not breathy not pressed).

"Adequate mass" is relative to the nature of the specific voice.  A dramatic soprano who believes she is a soubrette and has that sound concept is going to reduce contact area (vertical mass, if you will) to produce the expected sound.  In reducing mass to fit the tone concept, the soprano will have to induce pressed phonation to accomplish the length of the vibration cycle for the desired fundamental frequency (pitch level).  Likewise a leggiero tenor attempting to sound more dramatic may over-thicken (too much contact area) to produce the desired sound and have difficulty maintaining pitch.  He might loosen his closure to accelerate  the vibration cycle. Unlike the dramatic soprano's pressing to be a false soubrette, the light tenor would sound a little breathy and hollow lacking brilliance.  Having a correct sense of one's true timbre is essential to creating the correct conditions for proper phonation and therefore the production of squillo.  Unfortunately, few singers have a correct concept of their natural tone at the beginning of vocal study--Nor does the teacher in fact!  With experience a good teacher has a good idea of what a voice might end up sounding like when fully developed, but no-one can know precisely what a voice should sound like at first hearing.  That is why we listen for functions.  The phonation part of voice production depends on fundamentally three functions: 1) fold depth (vertical contact area) controlled by the Thyro-arytenoid muscle group 2) fold length controlled by the Crico-thyroid muscles and 3) fold closure controlled by the Inter-arytenoid muscle group.

Phonation requires a constant and dynamic rearrangement of these main muscle groups for every change of fundamental frequency (pitch).  This is the main challenge of vocal production.  When this dynamic and ever-changing balance is achieved, we discover what the specific vocal timbre is.  It goes without saying that the rearrangement of these muscle groups to achieve balance is like a gymnast learning to stretch for the first time.  It requires strengthening as well as relaxing.  As my Yoga teacher told me early in my practice:

 flexibility equals strength.  Each muscle must be strong enough to do its part for the specific movement.  It is not only about one stiff muscle relaxing, it is also about the countering muscle contracting adequately.  
 When this balanced source tone is achieved, both breath coordination and resonance adjustments must also be dynamic in order for squillo to become consistent.  The many muscles outside of the larynx must do their own balancing to achieve resonance balance.  This includes: A) laryngeal depressors and levitators achieving balance B) tongue, lips and jaw achieving appropriate balance in vowel and consonant articulation such that the optimal size of the vocal tract is not compromised.

Adequate breath support in the best case scenario should be reactive not active relative to the tone concept.  The singer must begin with a tone concept that sets up the fold posture and resonance space upon inspiration.  The inspiration part of breathing must expand the body, activating the inspiratory muscles enough to provide appropriate counter to the expiratory muscles.  Support is achieved when the feeling of inspiration is not collapsed at onset, such that the appropriate muscles of expiration are called to duty to provide the needed compression.  A singer does not need to support but rather learn to observe how the body supports the tone, such that they get out of the way of a complex function that our unconscious brain can process more efficiently than our conscious control.  The Old School teachers used to say:

Sing on the feeling of inhalation.  Do not try to support! Let your body figure out!
When remaining suspended in the feeling of inhalation, the correct support muscles will be activated without your conscious help.  Wait...for...it!  All respiratory musculature have attachment either directly or indirectly to the pelvis.  When we truly get out of the way of the natural process, we sense all kinds of interesting sensations in the pelvic area.  That is why some teachers prescribe "singing with your sex organs!"  No, the sexual organs, as such, are not involved.  But the breathing musculature is attached very close to the sexual organs.

However, even though the support muscles are automatic if their function is not preempted by conscious manipulation, they are not necessarily in shape for primal operatic sounds.  When a baby cries we can see their breathing musculature extremely involved.  Just as we lose our squillo by reducing our voices in childhood, the function of support musculature can atrophy or rather do not grow in strength with the growth of the body unless the vocal instrument is used with the same primal instinct that a baby has.  The more civilized we become the more we forego our primal instincts and thus we tend to lose the muscular tonicity necessary for operatic singing, which in short is primal sound applied to extraordinarily civilized music.

We have gone deeply into the discussion of the complexities of global vocal function to explain why some have squillo and some have not.  Some do not have because they are not encouraged or willing to do the work necessary to reawaken what was once there without special effort.

When a teacher tell you you do not have enough voice to sing opera, it should be translated thus:

I am not willing to spend the time with you that it would take to reawaken abilities that you had as a baby!
Many people maintain vocal abilities from their babyhood through adulthood and if they were encouraged to study music early and be onstage early, and they lived in Europe and speak several languages and are Caucasian,  they have lots of advantages.  These people are called talented.  Not having these advantages does not mean you are damned to never sing opera.  It only means you have a lot of work to do and you need to find people who are engaged in helping you do that work!  A lot of it you will have to do on your own!  Therefore it is possible that the only statement I may utilized from the Fast-Food Operatic Culture is this:

You must really want to sing opera! Unless it is absolutely necessary to your soul, don't start!
To achieve a high level of proficiency in opera, especially if you did not start with all the advantages I mention in the paragraph above,  you will need to have extraordinary will power and patience and dedication.

© May 12 2016